Reflection by Alan Goldberg AO

July 2010

Ron Castan and I were at the University of Melbourne Law School in 1958 and a lifelong friendship remained until Ron's tragic passing on 20 October 1999.  We, and our families, shared a lifetime of experiences.  We studied together, we played together, our families grew up together, we laughed together and we grew into middle age together.  Ron was 9 days off his 60th birthday when he passed away.  Now we cannot grow old together.

Ron was the quintessential renaissance man.  Ron had an enquiring mind and was a lateral thinker.  He was always ready to challenge accepted principles.  He had an impeccable logic and was quite happy to challenge views held by others in a way which compelled those with whom he entered into dialogue to justify their arguments with logic rather than with emotion.

Ron's commitment to social justice, the removal of discrimination and the protection of human rights and civil liberties was infectious.  He revitalised the Victorian Council of Civil Liberties (now Liberty Victoria) in the late 1980s in a way which attracted many to the cause of civil liberties and human rights.

His work with Australia's indigenous communities is legendary.  Without Ron, Mabo would probably have not seen the light of day.  His advocacy in the High Court paved the way for a re‑assessment in Aboriginal Land Rights thinking not only in the law but in the general community.  Ron's influence in this area continues to this day.

Alan Goldberg is a retired Federal Court judge


Reflection by Peter Rashleigh

July 2010

I first met Ron in the 1960s, when he was a young barrister and I was a lawyer in the making.   He was my tax tutor.  I knew very little about barristers and even less about tax.  Ron knew a lot about tax and, it seemed, many other things.  From the outset, what struck me about Ron, apart from his obvious intellect, was his easy and unassuming manner.  Despite what I'm sure was my lack of apparent aptitude for tax law, Ron never made you feel inferior or that he was judging you.

Later, in practice, I had the opportunity to work with Ron in an extraordinarily wide range of matters, first when he was still a junior barrister and, later, when he was a QC.  One of the clients for which we did quite a lot of work was the Church of Scientology.  This work included defamation actions against The Truth newspaper, an action seeking to establish that the client was a religion and, perhaps the most unusual of all, an action against ASIO, based on allegations that it had identified the client as a target organization.  Just to identify a cause of action against ASIO was an intellectual challenge in itself, and this is where Ron excelled.  Despite his mastery of the discipline of the law, he was never constrained by conventional thinking.  The case against ASIO didn't get all that far, but it did establish that ASIO was justiciable before the courts.  That probably didn't please the organization itself, nor the government of the day.  Apart from having his chambers ‘swept' for bugs, Ron was, as usual, totally unfazed.

One of the more conventional clients for whom Ron was engaged was Australian Airlines.  The dispute ranged from arguments between airlines over capacity and the related ability of the airlines to import aircraft, to a s.92 Constitutional case involving East West Airlines.  In these matters Ron showed his great analytical and strategic ability in distilling the issues and helping build a team to work them up.  As always, it was done calmly and objectively, and with a twinkle in the eye.

Another fascinating matter on which I worked with Ron was an action on behalf of the Maubere people of East Timor against the Australian government in relation to the Timor Gap Treaty.  Of course, Ron did this without charge.  Again it required novel ways of thinking about legal concepts.  We didn't ultimately succeed, but I still have the letter of gratitude from Jose Ramos Horta, the firstnamed plaintiff.  Ron moved seamlessly and pragmatically from causes of that kind to usual commercial cases.

I can still picture Ron, with his elbows on his desk, hands clasped and his head tilted slightly to one side, while he thought about something for a moment and then, with a smile, delivered gold.  I miss that!

Peter Rashleigh is a partner at DLA Phillips Fox


Reflection by Thomas Kenneally

July 2010

I was not a lawyer, but I was aware, even in the years before Eddie Mabo undertook, with Ron's prodigious support, to prove that he owned his garden on Murray Island, that Ron was an irreplaceable Australian.  I have met two or three people in my life of whom I've thought, when Australia has embraced some shameful dodge of policy, that if they were still here, the forces of benightedness would not have had such an easy run.  Ron was both in intellect and in his spirit, one of those irreplaceables.

I did serve with him on the Constitutional Commission in the late 1980s with Terry Purcell of the New South Wales Law Foundation and Peter Garrett.  His intellectual energy drove us, his scholarship was enormously broad, but he left us plodders our dignity.  The report was written and ignored, but the writing was superb and scholarly.  And you know who was responsible for that?  No, not me, but the two lawyers, and above all, Ron.

Through that sub-committee we got to know him and Nellie, and they always seemed the two sanest people in the room.  What I'm saying can sound easy to dismiss because things like this are often said of beings who don't quite deserve them.  Ron did.

But he was pragmatic too.  He wanted to be able to pursue a broad career.  The way he balanced his career with the work he was doing with us was pragmatic.  When I got around to reading a number of books on the Mabo case, I came again upon this pragmatism in the way he used, supported and worked (often to a limit of exhaustion) his junior counsel.  In this regard there was a sort of ruthlessness in him, a ruthlessness on behalf of justice. 

I loved the fact that he existed, but I wouldn't necessarily have liked being his junior in that great, relentless campaign.  In that regard he reminded me of Fred Hollows, who possessed a similar ruthlessness for justice, but who was hard to keep up with.  However, Ron was a less strident man - though, on his day, an equally daemonic one.

So he was an interesting combination of seer, brother and teacher, and all without the slightest arrogance or contempt for the lesser powers of those around him.

He was devoutly spiritual.  I once asked him, given his passion for human rights, did he think it wrong that at Synagogue, women were separated from men.  Oh, he said, religion is not democracy.  Again, in this his intellect was pragmatic, not absolutist.

I said he was irreplaceable.  He was.  He has not been replaced.  It takes more than a legal education, and even more than the maturing of a career, to make a Ron Castan.

Thomas Kenneally is the author of numerous books, including The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Schindler's Ark